With Great Power

Further thoughts on motorist responsibility

A few days ago I wrote about whether street design or individual drivers should be held more responsible for damage, injury, and death caused by cars and traffic crashes. I suggested that design is more to blame, drawing on work like this piece from Strong Towns:

Abundant research has shown clearly that people drive faster on wider streets. Conversely, the safest streets—for people walking, rolling, riding a bicycle, or driving—are those that make drivers feel most uncomfortable. Yet the conventional approach to street safety has been to widen streets and remove all edge obstacles—in other words, barriers that can protect pedestrians.

Here’s another piece, with a fantastic image of two streets with the same posted speed limit, but which feel like they should be driven at very different speeds:

The responses to my last piece also included discussion of enforcement, which I left out. I didn’t mean to suggest that there’s no need for traffic enforcement if we get the design right. There will be, and there’s even more need now, with roads which basically beg you to speed. The issue of training and licensing also came up. I can attest to the fact that it’s often too easy to get a license, and that tricky situations are barely taught. In New Jersey, where I earned my license, you merely needed to earn a learner’s permit based on scoring 40 out of 50 on a test, hold it for a few months during which you were assumed to be practicing, and then pass a 10-minute closed course driving test. The most anxiety-inducing part of the driving test is the parallel parking, a maneuver I’ve actually executed maybe five times in my six years as a motorist. Skidding? Hydroplaning? Handling a car when you need to hard brake for a person or an object in the road? Learning by doing, I guess.

So training, enforcement, and design are all very important (and the greatest of these is design.) But I also don’t mean to minimize the responsibility of motorists, especially those who are actually reckless rather than momentarily distracted, or just not expert drivers. So here I’m going to complement my previous post with more on that.

There’s no question that driving is not taken seriously enough in American culture. I think of the way gun enthusiasts—real ones—treat guns, with a sort of fearsome respect. If you’ve ever spent any time around these folks, you know seriously they prize safety and proper handling. Never point a gun at someone. Never pretend to pull the trigger. Never treat a gun like a toy or a movie prop. Always treat a gun like it’s loaded. Proper firearms training instills in someone how serious a matter this is, and how badly it can go wrong. Of course, guns are designed to minimize accidents, but they’re also designed to kill people.

My father used to say that there’s rarely such a thing as an accident. If you fool around and something goes wrong, that wasn’t an accident. This applies to guns, but it also applies to cars. And so, I think, should the same somberness that accompanies properly handling a firearm. A car is not designed to kill, but in the wrong hands, or with the wrong handling, it’s exquisitely well adapted for the job. 

Sure, they show you pictures of bloody crash victims in driver’s ed, but the point here isn’t to preemptively guilt or blame drivers, a tendency which I dislike and which led me to write about design. It’s my opinion that telling scary stories about drunk drivers crashing into trees or mowing down pedestrians doesn’t really instill seriousness or a sense of responsibility. It merely makes people feel bad, or even provokes them to do the opposite of what’s intended.

Getting behind a wheel puts you in a position of grave responsibility. A car is not a toy. Whether the cyclist or the pedestrian is “following the rules” is irrelevant to your duty to handle two tons of steel with as much focus, skill, and mental seriousness as you can. These are messages we should be teaching to young drivers, and frankly they are messages which anybody who drives should already take to heart.

To me, this is distinct from a lot of what gets thrown around on urbanist and bike Twitter. It’s distinct from heartbreaking stories of crash victims, and it’s even more distinct from stuff like captioning a photo of a building hit by a car with “WhY waSn'T tHe bUilDiNg wEaRiNg a rEfLeCtOr?” I understand this stuff is a sort of “very online” shop talk, but I suspect it does very little to move most people.

In any case, consider this part two of the post linked at the top!